MRO Magazine

Safety inspections launched after two deadly explosions at BC sawmills

Victoria, BC -- Two deadly explosions in northern British Columbia sawmills in recent months have prompted a sweeping review of safety in all sawmills in the province and raised concerns about whether the extremely fine dust from pine-beetle...

Victoria, BC — Two deadly explosions in northern British Columbia sawmills in recent months have prompted a sweeping review of safety in all sawmills in the province and raised concerns about whether the extremely fine dust from pine-beetle ravaged timber is part of the problem.

Forest industry and government officials will meet Wednesday, April 25, 2012, to review safety issues after BC Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid called for the provincewide safety check.

Shift supervisor Alan Little, 43, died Tuesday, April 24, 2012, after being rushed to hospital following a massive blast at the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George on Monday night. The explosion caused a ferocious fire and sent 10 others to hospital with serious or critical injuries.

In January, an explosion at the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake killed two and 18 others were sent to hospital.


After that explosion, WorkSafe BC sent investigators to mills around the province to look at whether other places had dust issues similar to those that had been reported at Babine Forest Products before the blast, but no directives were issued.

MacDiarmid said officials from WorkSafe BC, the Council of Forest Industries, the Steelworkers Union and the government will be at the Wednesday meeting.

MacDiarmid said her sawmill safety order is ”asking them, telling them, instructing them to inspect from top to bottom their mills.”

”There’s a common factor here and we’re all aware of it and it’s sawdust. So although we don’t know what caused the initial fires or explosions, we know that sawdust may be factor.”

[Editor’s note: see Part 1 of our guide to understanding, preventing and controlling dust explosions in ‘Dust, Dangerous Dust’, Machinery & Equipment MRO, September 2011, archived at]

Steve Hunt, United Steelworkers Western Canada director, said Tuesday there’s obviously a serious problem with the province’s sawmilling industry.

”These people have just survived the events at Burns Lake and probably have not come to terms with what they saw and what they’ve heard and suddenly they’ve been thrust right back into another tragic event that obviously brings back really vivid memories,” he said in an interview.

”It’s right back at them and so that’s tough.”

Last week, WorkSafe BC.said it is still investigating the Burns Lake blast and a report could be months away.

Independent Caribou North MLA Bob Simpson said he wondered if the pine beetle that has caused so much damage to the B.C. forest industry is also responsible for creating extreme safety hazards.

He said there is growing anecdotal evidence that mountain pine beetle-killed logs may be producing combustible materials at Interior sawmills.

”There may be absolutely no co-relation between Burns Lake and Lakeland. I want to be very clear about that. But it’s very unusual in British Columbia to have two explosions like this that have a similar feel to them: instantaneous, catastrophic and people not even getting an opportunity to get out of the mill,” Simpson said.

Simpson noted that when dry, beetle-killed logs started to blow apart in the saws inside sawmills in the province’s Interior, steps were taken to put up safety nets to protect employees.

But he said the fine dust and dry resin coming off the logs should now be looked at as a heightened safety hazard.

Sawdust is always seen as a potential culprit in mill explosions.

George Astrakianakis, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia specializing in occupational and environmental health, said dust plus spark plus oxygen is always an equation that equals fire.

But he said much investigating still must be done — mechanical failure of some kind or a gas leak — before anybody can reach the conclusion that pine beetle wood dust sparked the explosions.

Astrakianakis said concerns about pine beetle wood dust should be investigated as a possible cause of the explosions.

”It sounds entirely plausible,” he said. ”The moisture content of a standing dead tree is going to drop appreciably compared to what you would find in a live tree that’s harvested.”

Astrakianakis said the pine beetle wood dust particles may not be finer than dust from live trees, but they may be lighter because they have less moisture and that means they will stay in the air longer.

Lighter, airborne dust particles are a health hazard, but they also are ignition threats because they are dry and they float in the atmosphere rather than forming piles on the ground, said Astrakianakis.

However, Greg Stewart, president of Sinclair Group Forest Products Sinclair Group, which owns the mill, said Lakeland and other facilities have been milling beetle wood since at least 2003.

”We’ve been processing it for nine years and we have not had an incident,” he said in a conference call.

A small fire at the mill last month caused about $25,000 damage and was caused by dust on a halogen light bulb. No one was hurt.

”To draw the conclusion that the mountain pine beetle has been the cause of this (recent) incident, I would like to reserve that judgment until the investigation has been completed.”

Roberta Ellis, Worksafe BC’s vice-president of corporate services, was similarly cautious about linking beetle wood with the explosions.

”While we recognize that there are similarities … it’s too soon for us to speculate on the basis of the pine-beetle infested wood. As I said, British Columbia has been milling that wood for over a decade.”

Hunt said although the WorkSafe BC report into the Burns Lake mill explosion isn’t complete, his union wants some of the preliminary findings.

”Maybe they’re not ready to come out with findings yet but I really think they should share with the Steelworkers at least some precautionary steps that we may be taking,” he said.

”Obviously something is causing these mills to explode and to speculate is really, really dangerous … I don’t think either the RCMP or the (WorkSafe BC) anticipated another blast. And it may not be related, but to me, there’s enough of a coincidence here to take strong action immediately to prevent any similar occurrences from happening.”

BC Attorney General Shirley Bond — who represents the riding where the latest explosion occurred — said if safety issues are identified by investigators, the government will immediately ensure the problems are rectified.

Premier Christy Clark said she doesn’t want people to jump to conclusions about what may have caused the explosions in Prince George and Burns Lake.

”We are making sure that the investigations happen,” she said. ”We want to be absolutely certain that we figure out if there’s any connection between them.”

[Editor’s note: see Part 2 of our guide to understanding, preventing and controlling dust explosions in ‘Great Balls of Fire’, Machinery & Equipment MRO, November 2011, archived at]